Night Skies

Fallen Constellation: The formation of shapes when water collects and evaporates from old lake beds are mesmerizing. The rocks that washed down from the nearby Panamint Mountains embed themselves into the cracks when the playa is wet, though some of the rocks have been found to be fragments of meteorites as well. As we wandered the playa waiting for the full moon to rise and bathe the ground in light, a fireball (a meteor brighter than Venus) sizzled across the sky in one of the most spectacular celestial displays we’ve seen. The shape of these rocks pointed towards the Panamints in the shape of Cygnus the Swan in recognition. —Death Valley National Park, California

Nocturnal Frozen Islands: Thousand Island Lake touts Mount Ritter to its south and Mount Davis to its west, and many small islands within its bounds. A waning crescent moon was rising just below a massive cloud, so this light only lasted about 10 minutes. The core of the Milky Way coincided with Ritter during this brief window. –Ansel Adams Wilderness, California

Oak Savanna Lunar Eclipse: I have had an idea for the lunar eclipse to go alongside the silhouette of an oak tree for some time but achieving this has taken many false starts. Fortunately, total lunar eclipses are much more frequent, and path of totality is quite wide, so I have had many chances. In order for this to work well, totality must be reached shortly after sunset or shortly before sunrise, so the moon is low enough to be capture it with the horizon. This is quintessential California with oak savanna with the eclipsed moon filling out the empty space in this tree’s shape. —Palo Alto, California

Half Dome Tea Kettle: The hardiness of plant life in the high Sierra is astounding. These flowers grow out of a small crack in the granite and lead to the backside of Half Dome. Meanwhile in the sky, Sagittarius is known as the archer, but its bright stars also make the shape of a convincing tea pot. In this case, Half Dome stands in as the tea pot with the rising steam of the Milky Way. —Yosemite High Country, California

The Stars Look Very Different Today: Halema’um’u caldera of Kilauea can put on quite a show if the clouds cooperate. The red glow of the lava reflects onto any nearby clouds and the sky for a different view of the stars. —Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Australian Sky: The Australian night sky is disorienting to a resident of the northern hemisphere. The core of the Milky Way has always been near the horizon for me, but in Australia it is much higher in the sky. Australia Rock reminds one irresistibly of the shape of the continent itself. The high milky way and Australia Rock together give one a strong sense of place. –Narooma, NSW Australia

Martian Milky Way: Death Valley has an alien landscape between the salt flats, rugged colorful mountains, and odd phenomena like sailing stones. The most awe inspiring feature are the stars though. The yellow light pollution of Las Vegas is only visible at the horizon, but the rest of the sky is the darkest black at night. The core of the Milky Way combined with some light painting of the rocks using tail lights produced what we think Mars would look like at night. —Death Valley National Park, California

The Transit of Venus: A transit occurs in the same way that an eclipse does. When the path of Mercury or Venus line up perfectly with our planet, their pathway across the disk of the sun can be witnessed. Unfortunately the last transit of Venus of our lifetime occurred on June 5th, 2012 (unless you live for an additional century). The next one will occur in December 2117. —Los Altos, California

Accurate Calculation and Incomparable Beauty: A total eclipse is difficult to convey through a photograph (or so goes the refrain). Experiencing it first hand with your own eyes leaves an indelible mark. We had the good fortune to witness totality for the first time together and with Tim’s dad. The ability to predict the path of a solar eclipse and understand why it is able to happen only on our planet speaks to the power of accumulated understanding, but pales next to the awe of witnessing it. For those of you who have had the privilege of being in totality and seeing the unique blue light and floating ring of corona, we hope this can bring you back to the moment. For everyone else, 2024 is waiting. —Detroit Lake, Oregon

Salted Shore and Sky: The skies of Death Valley called again. Badwater Basin being the lowest spot in North America means that rains will often flood the salt flats in the winter months. Finding this pool required some scouting the previous day, and finding it in pitch darkness proved challenging. The reward though was seeing a rare reflection of the stars in one of the driest places on Earth. —Death Valley National Park, California

Moonlit Clouds Highlight Ancient Branches: This well known ancient Bristlecone snag has a younger living companion nearby, and they fit together like puzzle pieces from this perspective. Thick clouds obscured the stars, but the nearly full moon lit up the clouds to surround the branches of the ancients. —Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, California

Dressed in Snow and Starlight: This red fir captured my attention as it towered above nearby compatriots with a healthy layer of snow adorning its branches. Few things give a stronger feeling of winter than a snow covered evergreen. A descending gibbous moon lit its branches to help it stand out against the star field. –Kings Canyon National Park, California

Eruption at Fifth Lake: Since clouds are a rarity in the Sierra during the early summer, and my hike was surrounding the new moon, I decided to bring my astrophotography lens with me. Mount Robinson and Mount Gendarme balance each other out very well at Fifth Lake, but figuring out what to do with the Milky Way was a challenge. Putting it behind Mount Robinson seemed to fit the best since dawn would fade the Milky Way before it reached the saddle between the two peaks.–John Muir Wilderness, California

Pearlescent Postpile: I’d been planning this image for months, but needed to be local during the correct moon phase. The last light of the moon is similar to sunset light since bluer wavelengths are filtered out. The way Devils Postpile suddenly materializes from its average pine forest surroundings is surprising to visitors, and this feeling is amplified in the night.–Devils Postpile National Monument, California

Crescent-Lit Textures: The Mesquite Dunes are a popular location and are often covered in footprints. Fortunately, strong winds had just recently cleaned up the dunes to showcase all of the interesting textures that the wind can produce. This clay formation led naturally into the scene and up to the appearing stars as dusk fell to night. A low crescent moon provided the natural lighting to the ground and some wispy clouds streaked across the sky.–Death Valley National Park, California

Window: Sometimes timing lines up perfectly. A winter storm blanketed Yosemite Valley for the entire day. We were hoping for the moon to rise over Tunnel View, but clouds obscured it. A tried and true spot with a view of Half Dome gave us a small break in the clouds. It was enough to expose the crest of Half Dome, and open a window to the rising full moon. —Yosemite Valley, California

Silver Rivers in Meadow and Sky: The name for the Milky Way has an odd root in Greek mythology, but it has a name from every culture. Silver River is among my favorites, though the places with the limited light pollution needed to see it are becoming rarer. The complete arch from the south over Unicorn Peak to the north over Pothole Dome is mirrored by the Tuolumne River making its way through its meadow. This was right as the waning moon was about to crest over the mountains and wash out the sky. —Yosemite National Park, California